The Jewish Week: Muslim-Jewish Relations

To Gary Roseblatt – Editor and Publisher

I read with great interest your article entitled “How to Deal with American Muslims” (The Jewish Week, 09/10/04). The same points could have been made by an American Muslim asking how we should deal with American Jews. How ironic is it that our differences are so similar. In a way, that comforts me. There is hope.

Muslim-Jewish relations have interested me since college. Back then, I used to visit the Hillel center almost as often as I did the MSA (Muslim Student Association). I am glad I did.

You really never understand someone until you visit their house and see the world through their eyes. They say you don’t know a man until you walk a mile in their shoes. But to do that, you must take of your own shoes first.

Before I took the initiative to interact with the Jewish community, read their books, and understand the issues that matter to them, I saw Jews as the designated opponent, the other side. But through interacting, I quickly began to see the Jewish community much as I see my own: one that is rich with values and tradition, one that is keen to survive. Ever since, I have been able to appreciate their history, their festivities, their art, their literature, and their music. I remind myself that I could have been born Jewish. I could have been born anything. In the beginning and the end we are all human beings. We play different roles, but we answer to the same God. How distracted are we from this truth? How will this bear in how we deal with our differences? Differences are never the problem; it is how only how we purport to solve them that can be.

The trouble is that the majority of Muslims and Jews still see each other as natural opponents. The rift is rooted in the Israeli-Arab conflict. The problem is that we see each other exclusively through the myopic lens of this experience.

But as I read Spinoza and Kafka, or as I savor the sounds and atmosphere of Klezmer music, or as I read the Torah, why should I be obligated to think of Baruch Goldstein, or of whatever grievances I hold against Sharon? Who says I must? Where’s the connection? Can’t I enjoy timeless Judaic things for what they are, and still reserve the right to be critical of contemporary and circumstantial political issues as per my conscience? Of course this goes the other way as well.

The Israeli-Arab conflict is important to both of us, and we should expect to have differences in that area. But we must come to realize two very important points.

One, the Arab-Israel conflict is not the only event that defines our existence. It must never be all we see; life is much richer than that. God says in the Koran, “I created you in nations that you may be acquainted with each other”. The Arabic word for acquaintance is “Taarof” which comes from “Maaref” (Maarev in Hebrew). Each of God’s nations is blessed with a beautiful legacy and a unique contribution to share with each and every one of us. Our interaction is part of the beauty of living; indeed it adds life to living.

Two, we must realize that accepting and appreciating each other as two distinctly great nations does not imply that we support each other’s political stances. Most Jews fear that reaching over to Muslims means endorsing the terrorists amongst them. And most Muslims fear that reaching over to Jews endorses the Israeli military machine that churns in the occupied territories. That is the heart of the problem, and that must change. It is flawed logic born out of paranoia and ignorance. I overcame that shortsightedness, and I benefited greatly.

So needless to say, I am a huge proponent of dialogue and interaction. That is how you tackle paranoia and ignorance. It makes sense to me on paper, and it has worked well for me in real life. We will always seem like lurking shadows to each other until someone switches on the light and we start to see our human faces.

In summary, I am an observant Muslim, and I will always be passionate about my beliefs whether they are religious, social, or political. But what does that say about how I deal with my difference with others. I respect the right of others to differ with me. I believe in compassionate and sincere dialogue as a way to tackle differences. I believe in not taking one conflict and using it to define all of existence. Finally, I believe we were created into distinct nations to bond together, not to hate and kill each other. In the end, we are all human beings.

I really think the message I try to pass in my letter to you is lacking out there. I wish I had a way to share it more aggressively. Perhaps you can use it in your editorials. But I do what I can. I bring it with me to my work everyday. But I envision one day creating a foundation that lives this peaceful message which I believe is an integral message of Islam.

The key is to seek harmony, not hegemony, as a solution to conflict.

Ahmed Rehab
Communications Director
CAIR Chicago

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